Saturday, September 23, 2006

Brave new curriculum

A curriculum, says my trusty OED, is "a regular course of study or training, as at a school or university." At work in the past few years, however, I have been dealing with a curriculum that is anything but regular.

To the extent that it has been going through changes, this is fair. The degree program is in the field of Information Technology, which is a moving target for educators (and investors, for that matter). But it doesn't help that different people have different ideas of what "Information Technology" actually means. My own understanding is this: It's just plain not computer science. It's making stuff and doing things with computers, not actually building the computers themselves. The things that one can make and do with computers is constantly changing (consider that not long ago telephones and cameras were separate and not even related devices), and a college curriculum meant to educate students in how to make and do with computers has to constantly adjust in order to meet changing expectations.

"Regular" can also mean "normal," or "typical," and this is where things begin to go haywire. What's "normal" or "typical" in an Information Technology curriculum is pretty up in the air. There are lots of programs, but not a lot of commonalities. The Accrediting Body for Engineering and Technology (ABET) is working toward changing this by defining Information Technology-specific accreditation criteria for college programs. If your curriculum meets their standards, it will by definition meet certain minimum requirements that will be common to all accredited IT programs. Your graduating students will have mastered a certain level of math, a certain amount of programming, a certain understanding of human-computer interface issues, etc.

Last fall, I spent a great deal of time working with a new faculty member on devising curriculum changes that would edge us toward ABET accreditation. The changes were also supposed to solve some specific problems we'd been struggling with aside from accreditation: Our students were balking at our math requirements; they were flunking the second required programming course; and they were, if they graduated at all, graduating with no particular expertise in any area of IT. There was a lot of confusion, a lot of toes got stepped on, my faculty member partner threw her hands up and backed out of the project, and ultimately the ABET criteria were completely set aside in favor of... well, convenience, I think. So we proposed some dramatic changes, took them to Academic Council, and it was done.

This fall, when these curriculum changes took effect, the same faculty member suddenly became my boss. I'm very pleased, because I really like her. She's incredibly intelligent and experienced, and she knows how to analyze a problem and prioritize solutions. But the past four weeks have thrown us crisis after crisis. Sometimes it seemed like the administration was deliberately cooking up problems to send our way. And a few days ago, we got an email from one of our two-year "feeder" colleges... challenging our new curriculum. It doesn't meet the most basic standards set by the state of Georgia, let alone ABET accreditation criteria. Mostly, though, it doesn't play well with the other IT programs in the state, because... it's not "regular."

Now, some of us did already know this, but talking about it had a tendency to make us very unpopular, and there was a sense of hopelessness about it. We'd made the changes, the catalog had been published, and classes had started. When that email came in, I and my coworker brainstormed and came up with a fantasy curriculum that would fix everything, but it wasn't meant to be taken seriously. It was just an intellectual exercise, which I forwarded to my new boss.

Some of our ideas made it into the final draft of a curriculum change proposal, Friday morning. We're proposing a massive band-aid on the curriculum, mid-year. It's strong. It's quite possibly ABET-worthy. And now we wait, while the faculty consider what we've done and see all the ways in which it will challenge them, invade their little educational territories, and turn their worlds upside down. Wednesday, they vote.

It's going to be interesting.

1 comment:

Fayza said...

You go!